Unlocking the Mysteries of Motivation

Teresa de Onis, HDO Professional Seminar Participant & Strategic Marketer at Dell
December 10, 2015

It’s that time of year again. You want to lose weight in 2016, or maybe exercise more. You want to save more money. You want to paint more, grow your blog, and start writing your book based on the outline you developed six months ago. I know I do. But where’s the motivation? In fact, only 8% of us will succeed in achieving our resolutions. Why? Because of how our brains work. Creating new habits and sustainable change is hard.

As you may have guessed, I was in a personal funk when I registered for the latest seminar offered by UT Austin’s Human Dimensions of Organizations (HDO) program, Behavior Change and Influence. I was excelling at my strategic marketing job at Dell, but my art of oil painting and my blog were stagnating and the outline for the book I’m co-authoring had remained untouched for months. I had no motivation to change this situation, and I had developed some bad habits. Mindless Pinterest and Houzz surfing on my comfy new couch took up time I should have been spending in the studio painting and writing.

The premise of the seminar is that something needs to be done about the fact that we are sent out into the world to think and motivate without knowing a thing about psychology – how minds work and how people think. This seminar is taught by Dr. Art Markman and is based on his latest cognitive science research and insightful and accessible book Smart Change.

I walked into the seminar room at 8:30 AM on November 13 hoping for some actionable advice, and I walked out of class at 4:30 PM with a spring in my step. Here are the top things I learned to prime my mind for change:

Understand the difference between contributions and achievements. Achievements are the specific tasks that you check off your daily agenda. Contributions are the big-picture accomplishments that define your broad goals. Your contributions are the things that you can look back on with pride over the course of your life and career and realize that you have made a difference.

The broad contributions need to be articulated as process goals, not outcome goals. For example, my oil painting outcome goal would be, “I will complete five large paintings in 2016.” The problem with this outcomes-based approach is that at this time next year, I’ll be in a situation where I have to create new goals to sustain or improve on this outcomes goal.

A process goal sounds different: “I want to be creating and sharing my art and creative process with others.” This uses the language of ongoing process and enables me to set up a series of behaviors that are not focused on the completion of canvases, but instead on the process of creating and sharing art over the long-term.

Protect your long-term self from your short-term self. This is why we have 401(k) plans. The motivational system is comprised of two pieces: the GO system and the STOP system. The GO system works automatically, engaging goals and creating and learning habits, sometimes without our even realizing it.

The STOP system is “effortful inhibition,” or stopping actions that your GO System is pushing you to perform. The STOP system is less efficient than the GO system because it requires a lot of mental effort. Let’s look at my creating art example again. Instead of making the STOP system do all the work by saying, “Stop surfing Pinterest and Houzz,” I should activate my goal of “I want to be creating and sharing my art and creative process with others” by establishing a plan to engage in this behavior along with specific ways I will handle the common temptations of Pinning and Houzzing.

The plan must end up on your calendar, and Dr. Markman provides a journal and worksheets to help answer these key questions:

  • What am I going to do?
  • When is it going to happen?
  • Where will I do this?
  • What are the obstacles? Time? Resources? Assistance?
  • What is the plan to manage my environment and the temptations?
  • How can I engage with others to change my behavior?

Attempts to change are two steps forward, one step backward. You have to remember that small failures in achievements don’t mean you’ve failed at the overall larger contribution. I wrote about this need to be self-compassionate in more detail on my blog. I’m learning to keep track of the little failures in the journal so that I can figure out ways to continue to overcome the obstacles.

I hope I’ve inspired you to pick up or download Smart Change this holiday season and learn more about how the mind works so that you can activate goals in the pursuit of broad contributions over the long-term. Please share thoughts with us on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn and be sure to check out upcoming HDO Professional Seminars and sign up today.